The Turmeric Cancer Connection

The turmeric cancer connection has been getting huge amounts of press in recent years following the release of several studies that tout turmeric’s cancer-fighting properties.

Turmeric is an off-yellow colored spice that is grown primarily in India and popular in Southern Asian cuisine. 

The scientific name for the turmeric plant is Curcuma longa and the root of the plant is what contains the active ingredient curcumin. 

The main ingredient in turmeric, curcumin, and its metabolites (the compounds that it is broken down into in the body) are the chemicals that play the major role in the turmeric cancer connection.

turmeric cancer

turmeric cancer

Photo: @Carlos Lorenzo

Promising turmeric cancer research has shown that the antioxidant curcumin inhibits a number of different types of cancerous cells in vitro (think petri dish).  Researchers hypothesize that turmeric may retard tumor growth and actually prevent it.  Specifically, tumors in the esophageal, oral, intestinal, mammary and dermal areas of the body are inhibited with this chemical.

One Chinese turmeric cancer study on small cell lung cancer (SCLC), a highly aggressive form of cancer with a tendency to metastasize quickly and expansively, found that curcumin caused apoptosis (cell death) in these cancer cells through a number of mechanisms.

This compound has become one of the most studied nutrients, with over 60 official studies confirming over 100 pathways by which curcumin acts as an anti-inflammatory and antioxidative agent.  Additionally, studies have discovered a number of turmeric health benefits.  Populations who ingest turmeric regularly are at a reduced risk for Parkinson’s disease.

Perhaps the most important component of the turmeric cancer connection is turmeric’s incredibly potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant action.

It is by now well known that oxidative stress and damage and systemic inflammation have become considered the primary causes of not only cancer, but many autoimmune, inflammatory and sundry diseases including but not limited to diabetes, hypertension, Alzheimer’s, psoriasis and rheumatoid arthritis.

Epidemiological studies suggest that this diseases can be prevented, made less likely and treated with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory supplements, drugs and lifestyle changes.  At the forefront of the turmeric cancer connection is turmeric’s principal component, curcumin, which is a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compound.

Turmeric is also amazingly safe and has what is referred to as a high safety profile.  This means that while turmeric demonstrates a powerful action against a slew of chronic and inflammatory conditions, it leaves no noticeable collateral damage in its wake on healthy cells and tissues.

One concern in the turmeric cancer connection is the poor bioavailability of the active ingredient curcumin.

Since curcumin is not water soluble but fat soluble, the best way to ensure maximum absorption of the compound is by consuming it with some sort of healthy fats simultaneously, preferably in a tasty form.  Interestingly, curcumin bioavailability sees almost a 12 fold increase in the presence of heat with no significant degradation of the necessary molecule.

Another simple way to increase curcumin’s bioavailability is to couple it with black pepper or black pepper extract (piperine).  Some supplement manufacturers sell curcumin mixed with piperine in pill form and at least one other sells an almond butter (which is rich in healthy fats) mixed with black pepper and turmeric extract.

Preliminary studies have indicated some potential pro-oxidant effects that curcumin may have.  Curcumin may also interfere with the metabolism of iron in at-risk individuals.  Toxicity studies on zebrafish have suggested some adverse effects although a human study in Taiwan involving large doses of curcumin showed that a few patients experienced nausea and diarrhea but there were no significant adverse side effects on the whole. Like many of the foods listed on our sister site,, turmeric is one of the best natural combatants against cancer risk.

There are certainly more facts to be learned in the turmeric cancer connection and further research will hopefully shed light on the full scope of curcumin’s effects, but as of right now, curcumin has proven remarkably safe and potent as a supplement and an excellent addition to any individual’s disease prevention, supplementation and dietary regimen.

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